Reading Scripture: No Easy Task.2

We in PHIL 2200-Survey of Philosophy, have finally arrived at the module concerning Epistemology–or the study of knowledge. As one of the most bed rock parts of philosophy, this has lead directly to discussions about authority. Though it hasn’t come up in class, my personal correspondence in email with Dr. Ben Grazzini has been especially concerned with how this relates to theology–and further specified, Christian theology. I had Ben for PHIL 3180-Environmental Ethics last semester in which I wrote my term paper “Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics.” So given my paper and his feedback, we definitely know where we’re at with respect to each others philosophical/theological background.

Most recently he and I were discussing how the Bible might be authoritative. In the first post I wrote with this title “Reading Scripture,” I brought together the thoughts of Stanley Hauerwas and N.T. Wright. I shared that with Ben, and also these questions:

1.) Does the mere idea that translation of a text like the Bible is possible suggest there is no strong distinction between interpretation and meaning?

2.) Have you done any work pertaining to this quandary in particular? In which ways does your expertise in ancient philosophy speak to this question.(Ben’s expertise and doctoral thesis is in Aristotelian philosophy.)

Ben responded:

“I think the relationships among text, meaning, interpretation and translation are complicated. Especially when we’re separated by significant historical/cultural distance—but probably in any case—I’m inclined to say that there is no uncomplicated or unproblematic original (whether I’m thinking about that as the text = words on a page, or the meaning) that we can clearly and firmly hold apart from various interpretations. 
 
One way in which I have to confront this in ancient philosophy is the fact that with a couple of relatively minor exceptions, the oldest extant texts are medieval manuscripts. For Aristotle, the oldest ones anyone has date to the 9th and 10th centuries. For Plato, they’re a little later than that. So, already I’ve got copies of copies with almost 1500 years between the “original” and the texts we have access to. 
 
Add to that the fact that even if I’m working on the manuscripts, I’m still making decisions about which ones are more authoritative than others, which variants or readings to accept, and where, as an editor, I think emendations/corrections are warranted. If I’m not working with manuscripts myself, the text I read as “the original Greek” is a critical edition produced by someone in the late 19th or early 20th century (in most cases)–and so it seems even more the case that what I’m reading, and what I’m using as evidence for my claims about the meaning of the text, is this historical artifact—something that only exists within a tradition. 
 
Given that, though, it’s just as important to me to hold onto the text as one measure of interpretations. Even though it is not a fully free-standing original, the text still offers something like a common standard against which I can compare and evaluate what people say about it. I think that thought also needs the claim that meaning and interpretation are always underdetermined by words on the page—that is, that it’s never simply the case that we can look to the book and settle some question. 
 
From there, I need to try to hold onto a variety of issues: 
What we can know about historical context, and so what a text might have meant/how it was taken up in a particular period or setting; 
To what extent those contexts overlap enough with our own for them to be relevant; 
How far we can go in translating a set of concepts that may not fit with our own conditions into terms that we can recognize/deal with. 
 
And it’s somewhere around here that I run into a really thorny issue, namely, in what ways or to what extent consciousness/understanding is shaped by the material conditions of our lives. Just as one example, I can at least to a certain extent understand the ancient Greek cosmos: what they recognized as planets and stars; how they understood the relationships and mechanisms; and so on. But I’m not sure I can really understand what it’s like to live in that cosmos—to look at the sky and see the sphere of the fixed stars as the furthest limit of the cosmos. 
 
Similarly, I’m not sure that I know what a concept like “nature” or “virtue” meant for Aristotle. I can understand a lot about how he uses it, where it seems to come from, what sense we can make of it—but I don’t know that it has the same sort of connection to experience for us that it had for him. If concepts don’t depend on that sort of rootedness-in-experience, then this isn’t really an issue.”
Ben seems to be suggesting that the text only exists as a thing within an ongoing web of interpretive practices, and this is almost exactly the way that Hauerwas understands it.(See my previous post “Reading Scripture”) In this way, the text itself has no “original meaning” because that assumes that meaning exists prior to interpretive practices. This is by no means the end of the conversation, but I was fascinated to see the perspective of a philosopher that doesn’t devote much time to Christian considerations weigh in on the matter.
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What is the New Perspective on Paul?

In the past week, I had two of my closest friends ask what on earth the New Perspective on Paul was about. I really did enjoy talking through some of the bigger issues like the shape of Paul’s theology, specifically his revised Jewish understanding of election, justification, and eschatology because of his central belief that Jesus was promised and long desired King of Israel. An exhaustive look at the NPP is something completely beyond me, but I am about 3/4 of the way through N.T. Wright’s massive book Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I also own, but have not read, James D.G. Dunn’s book entitled The New Perspective on Paul and E.P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. 

This short video features two well respected New Testament scholars, and also two of the important emerging voices from amongst the more properly titled New Perspectives on Paul (emphasis on the plural). You might note from their words that before there can be a NPP, the foundational work has to be in a new perspective of Judaism–which is why Sander’s book takes such an important role as an initiator of NPP studies. Let me know what you think:

The Lost World of Genesis One

I am reading through John H. Walton’s book on understanding Genesis One for a second time and thought I would share his work. It’s really a great book, and not at all difficult to get through. A little over 100 pages. There is an expanded version, Genesis One and Ancient Cosmology that is closer to 300 pages I think, and I haven’t read it.

This book is significant because it pioneers an understanding of Genesis that flows from an understanding of a reconstructed Ancient Near East worldview. Highly stimulating, and I recommend you read it!

Here is my summary of the firs two propositions of the book: IntrotoWaltonsGenesis

Comment thoughts, I’m really interested in having this discussion.

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John Stott: Death

“Death is unnatural and unpleasant. In one sense it presents us with a terrible finality. Death is the end. Yet in every situation death is the way to life. So if we want to live we must die. And we will be willing to die only when we see the glories of the life to which death leads. This is the radical, paradoxical Christian perspective. Truly Christian people are accurately described as ‘those who are alive from the dead.'”

-John Stott, The Radical Disciple

Seeing Christmas as gospel

Some of you may know that I enjoy, over and above all other topics surrounding theology (at least for now), I enjoy discussion about the Gospel. I was exuberant to know that it was going to be made my High School’s theme of the year my Senior year, and I’ve been equally pleased about my church’s emphasis on the Gospel. In the last year my pastor preached through the book of Luke, which was refreshing as it’s often neglected in our circles that see Paul’s epistles as the center of the Biblical Canon. I wanted to share with you on this Christmas Eve, some of my recent thoughts on the gospel and Christmas.

Some of you will recall when Jason Regnier and I spoke in Senior Chapel on redefining the Gospel. Really what we meant by choosing a title like that was that we, as a church, as evangelicals, in America, need to be thinking about rethinking how we talk about the Gospel, and what Jesus and Paul really meant with it.

Briefly then, I just want to clarify what has already been written and said elsewhere, and in doing so, show how Christmas is not merely an introduction, or a bit of rising action, but an essential part of the Gospel.

First, what is not the Gospel. Most people in the American church understand the gospel along these sort of lines: God mad us. He is holing and loving. We sinned, God’s wrath is against us, but he sent his son Christ to die in our place and become our sin. If we believe in his death and resurrection, his righteousness becomes ours and we can escape this world to be with him in heaven when we die.

That is what I have called the personal salvation gospel, Scot McKnight has called it more technically the soterian gospel. Of course everything I just mentioned as part of the soterian gospel is biblical truth (sort of, the parts about imputed righteousness and the platonic view of escaping this earth is less biblical, but i digress…). The big point here is this is not what the New Testament means by Gospel. It is only part, and this overemphasis of personal salvation swallows a much larger and richer story about King Jesus.

This Salvation-centered gospel is what we’ve been “evangelizing” people with for many years now. Let me share with you a statistic in Evangelical American Churches–the people that mainly preach the soterian gospel. 90% of the children in these churches pray the sinner’s prayer and make a decision for Jesus, asking him into their heart, etc. By age 35, less than 20% of those who prayed the sinner’s prayer have anything to do with the Church of Jesus. Here is the fact. Since the emergence of the personal salvation gospel, people are leaving the church in record numbers. I have argued quite lengthily elsewhere, that this is because the personal salvation gospel is good at coercing children into making decisions, but not at making lifelong disciples of Jesus. Primarily because it asks the wrong question: Do you want to be saved from eternal hell? The question the Gospel is really asking is: Who do you say Jesus is? Just as Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And they knew that by answering “you are the lord, and messiah…” that meant life was now going to be different.

On the basis of 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel sermons in Acts, and the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, let me layout in brief the Gospel: The Gospel is the story of Israel coming to fulfillment in Jesus as Messiah–Jewish for King. The Jews of Jesus’ day were not waiting for God to send someone to get them into heaven and rescue them from earth, they were waiting for the second David, the ruler that would end Roman oppression.

How does this differ from the personal salvation gospel? The personal salvation gospel frames things in an individualistic, escape hell kind of way. The New Testament story of the Gospel is a story that comes to its fulfillment in the King Jesus, who will populate his Kingdom by saving a corporate body, a people of God, the now interlocked Israel and Church. If the Gospel is at its core fundamentally not about rescuing individual sinners, but rather a story that makes disciples, how can we see Christmas?

First, if the Gospel is the story of Jesus, then it follows that Christmas is indeed part of the Gospel. In the personal salvation gospel scheme, it would be just as well if Jesus had simply flown onto the cross. Ask yourself, for what you believe the Gospel is, does it matter if Jesus was born, or lived? Or does just the ending few chapters of the first four books of the NT all that matters? Christmas is the beginning of the story Gospel. If you think the gospel is about personal salvation, you might be puzzled about why Matthew begins his telling of the gospel with that long stuffy genealogy.

The genealogy has 3 main points. 1. Jesus is King-Jewish Messiah. 2. Jesus is a descendant of David. 3. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham. The Gospel, which is what Matthew is, is a declaration that Jesus is King, and the story of ho he became king. Genealogy in Jewish culture only mattered if you were royalty–this being confirmed by the presence of David, and with Abraham, this is the story of Israel, and really the world, because Abraham is classified as a proselyte–so a gentile.

What else is intriguing to me, and quite against the culture of the time, is the mention of 4 women. Each noted for what could be seen as sexual irregularity–setting the stage for Mary, the most irregular of all.

This is not an introduction that can be skipped over. Rather the genealogy in Matthew is an essential framework, a nutshell expression of the Gospel–as we’ve said, Jesus is King. At Christmas we are called to proclaim the Gospel story. This baby, son of Mary, is King, and Son of God. After 400 years of silence, God again comes to dwell with his people. Emmanuel. Matthew 2:1-12 is great here. Matthew is telling us about king Herod to say he is going down, and the son of Mary and Joseph is the reason why. Herod stews and plots, but he has completely failed to secure his rule. God’s promised Messiah will not be thwarted, and even when Rome’s cruelest torture is brought to bare on him, seeming to end his quest for Kingship, King Jesus shows this was the father’s plan all along. Through death, God has unleashed the Kingdom of life.

Merry Christmas!

-AJ

*Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright have been major influences for some of the thoughts in this blog. McKnight’s book “King Jesus Gospel” and Wright’s “How God Became King” are excellent.

Christianity and Environmental Ethics

In my first semester of college at the University of Toledo this past Fall, I took PHIL 3180–a philosophy course on Environmental Ethics. This was somewhat by accident. I was the sole Freshman in the class of about 30, with all the others being Juniors and Seniors. Aside from the basic work load readiness, the others in the class were also mainly environmental science majors. I’m a History major, specializing in analysis and concepts, not science. This made the large volume of reading material a challenge to say the least. But I have to say, I loved the class. The professor was excellent. If you’re at UT and have the opportunity to take Dr. Ben Grazzini, you absolutely should. He seems to have a genuine concern for the well being of his students. I was really excited to hear back from him in an email last week where he told me that my term paper, “Concerning Christianity and Environmental Ethics” was one of the “most intellectually-curious non-obvious pieces of work” he had ever received from a student. Semester=made. Here is a PDF of my paper below! If you have any feedback or questions please comment! I’d love to flesh this out as much as possible. So much more to be said on this issue, but here’s a start:

TheChristianEnvironmentalEthicFinal(1)

the poor

Deuteronomy 15:11- There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.
Proverbs 14:31- 31 He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
Proverbs 21:13- 13 If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.
Proverbs 29:7- 7 The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.
Jeremiah 22:16- 16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.

Matthew 25:37-40-“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'”The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Luke 16: 19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’